Wednesday, July 09, 2003

Writing Degree Zero

I've got two main jobs in this little period of time. One of them a semi-journalism story, the other something more unusual for me.

The story is for a university alumni magazine, which makes it part journalism, part PR. I try to take into consideration the PR requirements, which are to accentuate the positive and include as many alums who might donate as possible. But basically it's reporting and writing a story. I become more aware of the dynamics of that process when they push against other agendas. Every story grows organically into itself. I'm given an assignment, certain parameters and requirements. Then I apply my own analysis, ideas, experience, and skills to the research: what to look for, who to talk to, what to ask. It's a complicated process. For example, when you are talking to the first people, you're still pretty much in the dark. You're getting information-sometimes basic information-and testing your assumptions, and the assumptions of the assigning party-against what you're hearing and finding out.

Each interview sheds different light on facts and other available presentations (books, articles, web sites), so that become a back and forth dynamic. And at a certain point each interview helps shape the next: you refine your questions, perhaps taking a different approach to the subject based on what you've learned, or filling in details, or getting differing views. That dynamic sets itself going.

Interviews are themselves dynamic and sometimes delicate matters. Some people are media savvy. Some look at tape recorders as if they were poisonous snakes about to strike. Some of the dynamic is affected by how badly the interviewee has been burned by journalists before, journalists misunderstanding, misquoting and generally misusing them (or so at least they feel) or just wasting their time. In any event the interview is a kind of dance that begins with preparation. You want to be prepared enough to ask the right questions, and indicate some knowledge of what it is the interviewee is talking about, and does for a living, so you can get to better questions with better answers.

At the same time, you are there to get that person's words, explanations, views. They have to do the talking, preferably in complete sentences. So they have to say what you may already know.

Besides, it's dangerous to assume too much. So you have to be willing to sound dumb by asking elementary questions you think you know the answer to. Often enough, you find that you actually don't know, or you had it wrong. And if you have your conclusion confirmed, so much the better. It means you've understood something, so you can take the interview to the next level, and feel more confident that you can construct the story.

Later interviews can confirm, nail down those loose ends, answer more incisive and pertinent questions, add color and breadth and depth. When you're hearing the answers you've heard before, it's time to stop and write the piece. CONTINUING

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